By Sudarsan Raghavan
Thursday, January 20, 2011; 8:10 PM
IN TUNIS They grew up being told to bottle up their frustrations, not to discuss politics and to accept a life without basic freedoms.
They grew up in a world of paranoia, fearing the secret police, fearing that their cellphones were tapped. To find a good job meant having to know a relative of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the autocrat who ruled this North African nation with an iron fist for 23 years.
"We were not living. We were like his puppets," said Asma Nairi, 22, a law student. "If we spoke the truth, we would be punished."
Tunisia's revolution was fueled by tens of thousands of young people, most in their teens and early 20s, who ultimately overthrew their leader. Few analysts or diplomats predicted such an upheaval would take place here, a prosperous and secular Arab nation that lacks an organized opposition.
Yet in interviews across this tense capital, young people of all economic and social classes said they had long felt part of a lost generation of Arab youth, facing problems widely shared in the region, from Morocco to Egypt to Yemen.
They were highly educated and ambitious, but frustrated about job shortages and low wages. They were infuriated by the corruption, the human rights violations and the government's unchecked abuse of power.
But in an information age, shaped by Facebook and Twitter, Tunisia's youth were also exposed to the openness of the West and the oppression felt by their peers across the Arab world. Their resentment poured out on the Internet, building up until it exploded in cities across Tunisia.
"We grew up hating the government," said Karim Ali, 25, a computer engineer who joined the mass demonstrations last week that ousted Ben Ali from power. "Our government made us into a lost generation."
These are the stories of Tunisia's young people, the grievances that pushed them to mount an uprising, and their aspirations as uncertainty and turmoil continue.
Turning point: suicide
For many young Tunisians, the turning point was the death of Mohamed Bouazizi, 26, an unemployed university graduate who set himself on fire Dec. 17 in the city of Sidi Bouzid to protest his bleak job prospects.
"All of us know how he felt," said Mehnez, also 26, seated in a cafe in Intilaka, a poor neighborhood in Tunis, with two unemployed friends, Ziad and Alla, who were university graduates. "For us, we call this the Revolution of Mohamed Bouazizi, not the Jasmine Revolution."
They spoke on the condition that their family names not be used for fear of reprisals from militias aligned with the former regime.
As word spread of Bouazizi's self-immolation, so did the riots. On the street next to the cafe are charred buildings and boarded-up shop fronts. Several protesters died on this street during clashes with police, witnesses said. On the walls, graffiti voiced the angst of a generation: "The City of Joblessness" and "Let's wage jihad to realize our demands."
Tunisia was long considered a model country in the region, with high economic growth rates derived largely from tourism, universities, hospitals and good infrastructure. But the wealth remained largely in the hands of the elite. By some estimates, 20 percent to 40 percent of the nation's youth are unemployed, mirroring figures in other Arab countries.
In the cafe, unemployed young men - as many as four shared one cup of coffee - said they took to the streets to vent their anger about rising prices, the lack of health benefits, even dues they were forced to pay to the ruling party.
Alla, who has a graduate degree, has been out of work for three years; job openings, he said bitterly, are filled by those connected to the regime.
"People couldn't support themselves anymore," Mehnez said. "There was a small part of the population who had all the money, the buildings and the land."Jailed for speaking out
Saifeddine Amre, 22, spent six months behind bars for writing about Tunisia's inequity. During an internship at a local newspaper, he submitted an article probing alleged real estate transgressions by Ben Ali's wife, Leila Trabelsi, and her family. The editor reported him to the secret police.
In prison, Amre said they beat him and stamped a cigarette butt on his hand. The scar is still visible.
The watchdog group Reporters Without Borders listed Ben Ali's government as among the "top 40 predators" of journalists. Sites such as YouTube were censored after a smaller wave of protests in 2008 that was suppressed.
When last month's uprising spread, Amre went to Sidi Bouzid and other towns, filming demonstrations with a video camera or his cellphone. He and his classmates uploaded videos and photos onto their Facebook pages, which were not censored. They created, in effect, a shadow news agency that helped break the barrier of silence at a time when state-run television and radio stations were ordered not to cover the protests.
"Facebook was the means of our revolution," Amre said. "We used it to apply pressure on the regime, to make sure the truth came out."
Nairi, the law student, also posted angry messages on her Facebook page. Many of her 700 friends on the site did the same, multiplying their bitterness across a vast network of disenchanted youth, many in Tunisia's middle class.
"I was fed up," said Nairi, whose parents are lawyers. "This was my chance for a better life."
She was concerned about finding a job. Or someone less qualified than her, but better connected with the ruling family, would win a position over her.
She was also inspired in part by Egypt's April 6th Movement, a youth-led uprising in 2008 whose supporters used Facebook and other social-networking sites. Those demonstrations, in support of striking workers, were harshly suppressed by Hosni Mubarak's government.
"I was asking myself, 'Can our youth have the same courage to do what the Egyptian youth did?' I did not imagine that one day, the Tunisian youth would do something much bigger," Nairi said.
Nor could Walid Yaich, 25, a computer engineer. As a child, his parents warned him never to speak openly about the government. As an adult, he held onto their words.
"It was a culture that was in our veins: the fear of saying what you want to say," Yaich said. "Even on the phone, we were afraid to talk about politics."
But the growing protests "made us brave," he said. "It made us want to say no to the regime."
Last week, Yaich joined the demonstrations, then celebrated amid the crowds in downtown Tunis as Ben Ali and his family fled to Saudi Arabia.
"For the first time in my life," he said, "I felt free."
Far from over
The crisis is far from over. On Wednesday, Nairi and Karim Ali engaged in a heated discussion similar to many taking place in this capital. The central question: How does Tunisia move forward?
The new unity government includes many members of the former ruling party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), triggering daily protests. Nairi said that after 23 years of political repression, Tunisia needs experienced hands to steer the country into a new era.
"The RCD is not only Ben Ali and his men," she said. "There are not only bad people inside the RCD."
But Ali worried that Islamists could manipulate the turmoil and gain power. Or that the ousted leadership could return.
"If we keep the RCD, it will crush our democracy. It will be as if Ben Ali is here," he said. "RCD is manipulating the process to kill our revolution."
"The future is still not clear," sighed Yaich, as he listened to the debate.